Yet, it will be said, for all the defects in the German plan, it was successful. True, but successful only in its main objective and by a far narrower margin than circumstances really made necessary. If it be remembered that all plans aim to be successful with the minimum of time and loss, and that a plan under which Canea fell on 27 May and not on 20 May and only after losses in the neighbourhood of 7000 killed and wounded, it will be recognised that the success was too dearly paid for to be spoken of without serious qualification.
The question remains. Need it have been successful at all, given the conditions under which the battle opened? Supposing the enemy had failed at Maleme, would not the whole invasion have collapsed? The answer is doubtful. This was a time and a stage of the war when Hitler had had no practice in acknowledging failure and when prestige was one of his best weapons. Had his commanders decided on the evening of 20 May that Maleme was a failure, they might still have switched their effort to Heraklion or Retimo and devoted to reinforcement there the resources that were to go in the event to Maleme.
It is doubtful none the less. He might equally well have felt that with the losses already sustained in men and aircraft, with the chance of an immediate coup gone and with the invasion of Russia forbidding any delay, it was better to accept the rebuff and concentrate on making Crete untenable by using aircraft to cut the shipping route—as he might well have done. So the question recurs in narrower form. Need Maleme have fallen?
It may be said at the outset that Britain deserved to lose it. However justifiable in detail the reasons for pitting an ill-equipped, ill-armed and ill-organised force, without aircraft and without adequate preparation, against a highly trained and equipped force which had all the aircraft it needed and the initiative as well, the page 463 side that accepts battle at such disadvantage must attribute more to fortune than to merit if it holds what it set out to hold or gets what it set out to get.
Yet, for all this, the case may be made that Crete could have been held. Had 22 Battalion not fallen back on the night of 20 May, it can be said, had counter-attack come on 21 May or earlier on the night of 21 May, the enemy might have been driven off the airfield and the defence reorganised.
The reply must stand on the facts as they were known at the time; and the details have already been discussed. Given the circumstances at every vital stage, different courses from those actually taken have the strength and the weakness of hypotheses. They might have succeeded and it cannot be proved that they would have failed; but, on the other hand, it cannot be proved that they would have succeeded either. And in fact it is probable that things took the course they had to take. Each decision taken was the consequence of the concrete conditions of the battle: lack of artillery, lack of aircraft, and—perhaps most of all—lack of communications. These conditions determined the decisions of local commanders.
Thus at each crisis of the battle each commander could defend the decision he took in the light of what he knew at the time; and that is basically a stronger position than that of us who criticise the decisions in the light of what we know now and support other possible courses of action in the light of what we shall never know.
This is not to deny that criticism is possible. It is to suggest the background against which the critic must scrutinise his own criticism; and to remind speculation that the criticisms made or implied in the course of this narrative are always subject to similar reservations. And, lest the historian seem unwilling to commit himself, he may be permitted to say that, given all the disadvantages against which the commanders had to struggle, he does not doubt that mistakes were made but does not think they were more numerous or more culpable than the mistakes made, say, at Alamein. Only the odds were greater and mistakes correspondingly more dangerous.
One thing at least can be said roundly, in a field where little is certain. Soldiers never fought better than they fought on Crete; and not least among them the soldiers of the New Zealand Division. No blame for the loss of the island can fall on the rank and file. Nor should this be taken as implying discredit to commanders. No men ever held positions of responsibility in page 464 conditions more inimical to success than did the senior officers in Crete; and no men ever discharged their responsibilities more devotedly.